American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2016       FAMILY

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Time and Love

by Paula Ann Sprecher

Paula and Alan Sprecher with their daughters, Rupa Elizabeth and Aihua Sprecher.From the Editor: Paula Sprecher is a teacher of the visually impaired in Chicago, Illinois. She and her husband, Alan, are the parents of two blind daughters. In this article Paula recounts her long journey toward healing and parenthood.

Have you ever heard the recording by The 5th Dimension called "Time and Love?" It's a song that really speaks to me. I've often thought that if I ever write my autobiography, Time and Love will be the title. The refrain says,

Time and love, everybody,
Time and love,
Nothing cures
Like time and love.

Having a child with a visual impairment wasn't in my parents' plans. They resented what they perceived as my imperfection, and the little love and affection afforded me was conditional. It wasn't until I began to win scholarships and other academic awards that my parents started to believe in me. By that time, though, I was out of the house. I was compelled to leave home when I was eighteen because I felt so unacceptable, like a hopeless failure.

The expression "Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" means that if you get knocked down by life, you are to pick yourself up and carry on. After I left home, I was a mess for years. I felt depressed, anxious, and insecure, and I suffered from low self-esteem. I lacked basic life skills, and my mother's negative comments played over and over in my mind. Time and love were the elements I needed to heal and become whole. I learned that being removed from a negative environment can heal one's soul and lead to self-actualization.

The Adoption Journey

I met my husband, Alan, when I was twenty-one. At that time I was living at the Badger Home for the Blind in Milwaukee. We dated for five years before our wedding. Subsequently we moved to the Chicagoland area for Alan's employment with Sears.

Alan and I always wanted children, but we chose not to have our own biological offspring. In addition to being totally blind, Alan has a form of muscular dystrophy that makes it difficult for him to walk at times. Genetic counseling revealed that each of our children would have a strong likelihood of being visually impaired and having some degree of muscular dystrophy. After a lot of thought we decided we did not want to pass these traits along. However, we felt we had a great deal to give as parents, especially if we became the parents of a child with a visual impairment.

Early in our marriage, Alan and I decided that adoption would be our route to parenthood. We knew that there must be blind and visually impaired children who were available for adoption. I was in college during our early years of marriage, so we couldn't act upon this idea right away. Eventually I earned a master's degree plus certification to teach the blind and visually impaired.

Every few years after I finished college, I called various Chicagoland foster care/adoption agencies and inquired about adopting a visually impaired child. Time after time I came up empty-handed. I remember calling the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and asking for information. They responded that if we wanted DCFS to collaborate with other governmental agencies throughout the United States to locate a child with a visual impairment, we would have to pay seven thousand dollars for the service. Even if we paid this sum, there was no guarantee that a child would be located. For a few years I gave up hope.

In spite of my despair, a miracle happened after we had been married for nearly twenty years. My husband is a cantor and a member of the choir at our church. One December Sunday, he was scheduled to cantor at seven-thirty Mass and to sing with the choir at ten-thirty. During the seven-thirty Mass, two guests from Poland spoke after the Homily. They turned out to be nuns who were visiting churches in the US to raise money to build a school for the blind in Africa.

As they spoke I grew lightheaded with exhilaration. I turned to Alan and suggested that we talk to the guests after Mass. I was thrilled when he immediately agreed.

When we found the sisters, we poured our dilemma into their sympathetic ears. One of them suggested that we write down our contact information, and she promised that they would try to find someone to help us. It seemed such a long shot that I thought we would never hear from them again.

In retrospect, I feel it is miraculous that we met the sisters at all. They were not in attendance at the later service that day. If Alan had only been scheduled to sing at ten-thirty, we would have missed this chance meeting.

A Child in India

A few months passed. Then one day a special Easter greeting arrived from Poland, and it was written in Braille! The letter stated that a blind child in India was available for adoption. It encouraged us to find an adoption agency to begin the process.

Immediately we emailed the contact in India to get the adoption process underway. We also started to work with Catholic Charities of the Archdioces of Chicago and with Americans for International Aid and Adoption (AIAA) in Michigan. Both agencies were necessary in order for us to adopt internationally.

It's funny how things happen--Moti, the social worker whom I chose at random from a list of names, turned out to be visually impaired herself! She warned us that the Indian government might not grant us an adoption due to our disabilities. We were reminded of this concern throughout our work with AIAA. However, it turned out that Moti was a perfect advocate for us. As you've probably guessed, our story has a happy ending.

Alan and I were kept busy for almost two and a half years compiling and completing mounds of paperwork for both agencies, attending parenting classes, and keeping various appointments. At times the whole process seemed too overwhelming, demanding, and uncertain. Meanwhile, we kept emailing Sister Sara in India, who wrote many inspiring letters and sent us photos of our future daughter.

Laxmi Rupa

The day finally arrived when we were granted permission to travel to India to meet our little girl, Laxmi Rupa. Laxmi means "Hindu princess" and rupa means "beautiful" or "silver."

We took a sighted friend with us to help with paperwork and travel in the unfamiliar environment. Our plane arrived at midnight, and we were surprised to discover that Rupa was waiting with Sisters Sara and Claire outside the airport. They told us that she could not sleep and begged to go to the airport to greet us.

We were all so excited! Rupa had a huge smile on her face as Alan and I greeted and hugged her. At seven she was small for her age, and she spoke British English. She wore a dress with a crocheted poncho, and her hair was styled into ponytails. The most noticeable detail about Rupa was her ever-present smile. This is true even today.

The sisters helped Rupa place leis of exotic flowers around our necks. We all clambered into a jeep driven by the school's driver. Rupa sat on my lap, and all during our journey we chatted to our new acquaintances. At one point, I reached into my suitcase and pulled out a doll, which I presented to Rupa. I couldn't believe that our dreams had come true at last!

An hour or so passed before we reached the school in Bangalore. When we climbed out of the jeep, our surroundings seemed eerie. The air was warm, and there was little lighting. Down the alley where we pulled in, a fire blazed, and people softly wailed because there had been a death.

We stayed in the school's guest room, which contained two beds and a table. Mosquito netting hung above the beds, and there was no air conditioning anywhere. The bathroom had a toilet and a sink. The shower, which had no stall, consisted of a bucket and a sprayer of the kind you might connect to your kitchen sink. A heating rod had to be placed in the bucket to heat the water. The apparatus was so daunting that we simply took cold showers. The weather was hot and humid anyway.

In the morning we awoke to the sound of Muslim prayers being recited over a loudspeaker from a mosque near the school. Prayers were recited five times a day. Rupa's school was Christian, although some children practiced other religions.

Rupa attended Jyothi Seva School for Blind Children, which was connected with a home where the pupils lived. Jyothi Seva means "service of the light." The combined school and home were founded in the 1980s by the Sisters of Charity. The school stood across the alley from the buildings that housed the eighty-five children.

The school was an attractive brick building three stories high with bay windows, balconies, and wrought-iron fencing. A play area and garden were behind the children's home. Beautiful flowering vines hung from the walls.

Jyothi Seva educates children from birth through high school, and not all of the children are orphans. No small children or children with multiple disabilities were present when we visited. They had been sent somewhere else because the area was not considered safe for Christians at that time. The school officials felt that the remaining children would be able to run to safety in an emergency, with the assistance of their caretakers.

Jyothi Seva is funded by private donations, and it adheres to governmental guidelines regarding teacher certification and educational standards. The classrooms lacked technology and many of the other teaching aids that American teachers take for granted. The school had a crafts room, an assembly hall, a computer lab, and a library. The library was the size of a large walk-in closet, and its shelves were only half full. The computer lab contained a couple of computers and Braille embossers, but some of the equipment was not in working condition. There were only a couple of Braillers. Most of the students used full sheet-sized slates and wrote their assignments on the pages of donated magazines.

The lunchroom contained tables where the students ate from metal plates. Their meals consisted mostly of rice, with little meat or other extravagances. The bedrooms each contained metal bunk beds and a dresser. There were no toys.

The children were clean, well dressed, and polite. Each student owned one uniform, which hung from his or her bed, and one pair of socks, which was washed nightly in the sink and hung up to dry.

We stayed for four days before flying to New Delhi to complete more paperwork and to apply for Rupa's passport and visa. The day we left Bangladore played out like a scene from a movie. All of the students assembled in the alley and sang several pieces as Rupa, Alan, our friend Joan, and I stood in front of the group. Rupa held her doll as she listened, wearing a big smile. She looked sweet in her green sundress, sandals, and ponytails. As we drove off, the students sang "So Long, Farewell" from The Sound of Music. We were on our way to the second part of our journey.

Explorers in New Delhi

When we arrived at the airport in New Delhi, we were to meet a taxi driver named Mr. Singh. We found a whole railing lined with men holding large papers with the names of people they were waiting for. Nearly all of them were dressed in American-style clothing, but one man wore a turban and carried no sign. The man in the turban turned out to be the one we were looking for.

Mr. Singh was very kind and gentle. For the next week and a half he drove us all over New Delhi and Delhi. He took us sightseeing and shopping, and he showed us the local eateries. He escorted us to fancy shops and malls and led us to not-so-touristy shops in secluded areas.

My favorite places were the small neighborhood shops because they were authentic. I was uncomfortable about haggling for lower prices, but this was the practice in India. One of the first places we shopped was a market where we bought a few toys to keep Rupa occupied.

While we were in New Delhi we stayed in a hostel. We were very thankful that it had air conditioning and a real shower.

Our days were packed with visits to palaces; forts; museums; parks; temples; a basilica; government buildings with ornate, manicured lawns; a five-star hotel; and of course the Taj Mahal. Wherever we went, the traffic was horrendous because there were few traffic lights. Every type of vehicle imaginable was on the road--rickshaws, both motorized and human-powered; motorcycles carrying whole families; cars; city buses with people hanging out of the back doors; trucks; and bicycles. Pedestrians wove in and out through the confusion. Cows roamed freely, so you had to watch where you stepped.

We witnessed great wealth and, sadly, much poverty as well. Whenever we stopped at an intersection, droves of children approached the car, begging for money. It was heartbreaking to see the same children day after day.

We came home with Rupa on Columbus Day, 2008. How ironic that she and Columbus discovered America on the same day!

But Rupa was lonely in Chicago. She'd spent her whole life with eighty-four other children. After a year we began the adoption process again, this time to find a sister for Rupa.

Aihua Mei

By this time Alan and I were too old to adopt from India again. Our social worker suggested that we try China. It did not take as long to adopt our second child, as our home study only needed to be revised. Again, we worked with Catholic Charities, but we also worked with a new agency based in Oregon, Associated Services for International Adoption (ASIA). It took us a year to complete the paperwork.

I was instructed to go online and read adoption bio entries for China. There were many children looking for homes--mostly older children, or children with medical conditions or disabilities. I was surprised to learn that boys were available as well as girls.

I found four blind girls whose bios interested me. Three of them were Rupa's age or a year younger, and the fourth girl was four years younger. From their bios the older girls appeared to be developmentally delayed, and we felt that they would not be good matches for Rupa. The younger child seemed delayed, too, but we thought that since she was young we could help her catch up. Her bio listed her name as May and her age as six. It said she knew her own cup from the cups of her foster family members, could count to ten, liked to ride her tricycle, could recite Tang poetry, and could identify the members of her foster family by voice. It also said she was "a cute baby."

We traveled to Beijing in January 2011 with our friend Suzie from the Chicago Lighthouse. There we met with Susan, a social worker from ASIA. We had hired Susan to stay with us and interpret, as our new daughter only spoke Mandarin. We wanted to be sure our little girl understood what was happening.

The next morning all of us boarded a plane for Wuhan. We stayed at a hotel there and went to meet our daughter the next day. It turned out that her name was Aihua Mei. Aihua means "love China" and Mei means "sister." The director of the adoption agency created this name for the little girl when she was found as an infant. Mei is part of the name of the province where she had lived, which was Hubimei.

Like Rupa, Aihua had been lucky. She was not raised in an orphanage. She had lived with a foster family on a farm three hours from the closest city. Her dialect of Mandarin was so unusual that it was difficult for people to converse with her in the standard Mandarin form. It is said that people from her area are so smart that they have nine heads. Aihua doesn't have nine heads, but she certainly is smart!

When we walked into the Chinese Center for Adoption, Aihua was sitting on a sofa next to Mama Gui, the director of the agency. She was quite small for her age. When I held her hand, it was so small and warm! Tears were running down her cheeks as Mama Gui spoke to her softly. We brought small toys with us and tried to get her to play with them. She warmed up to us, though she was quite cautious.

We were able to take her with us that day, but we needed to return the following day for the next phase of the adoption. I remember that Aihua had to place her foot on an inkpad and press it onto one of the adoption papers. She complied, but she must have wondered what was going on.

We were advised not to bathe Aihua right away because she needed the scent from her home to comfort her.

We waited a couple of days before putting her in the tub. When we met her she was wearing all the clothes she owned. Under her winter coat she wore a knitted sweater and insulated Hello Kitty jeans, a knitted shirt and knitted pants, pajamas, and socks. She also wore ankle boots. She looked like a boy because her hair was so short.

We were not permitted to meet Aihua's foster family. We wanted to thank them for the marvelous job they had done of raising her. She had many skills already, and she learned quickly. She was a tomboy who loved to climb. She'd climb anything, and we had to be constantly vigilant for safety's sake.

We remained in Wuhan for a week before traveling to Guangzhou to complete the adoption process. In both cities we decided it would be best for Aihua if we did not join the other adoptive families for sightseeing. Instead, we spent hours with Aihua at the parks. The parks in China have a lot of play equipment. We also went for walks and visited a zoo, a botanical garden, shops, and shrines. We tried to incorporate all of Aihua's senses into our experiences.

We spent a week in Guangzhou, where all adoptive families go to finalize the adoption process. Our last task was to pick up Aihua's passport and visa. We stayed in a gold five-star hotel, which was part of the adoption package. We thought we'd better enjoy it, because this would be the only time in our lives when we would stay at such a luxurious place.

Words cannot convey how beautiful this hotel was. There were doormen, gold embellishments on the walls, and flowers growing in gigantic pots. There was a waterfall, marble everywhere, and so much more. We stayed in suites, and each one had a doorbell. You could even watch TV while taking a bath. Fresh flowers and fruit were delivered daily.

Home at Last

When we returned to Chicago, we worried about Aihua's acquisition of English. We wondered whether her blindness would affect her ability to connect new words with objects and actions in her environment. As soon as she realized we did not speak Mandarin, she stopped talking altogether. When no one was interacting with her she tended to curl up into a ball. While Rupa was at school I would turn on Sesame Street or some other kids' program, and her little head would pop up whenever she heard a familiar word. Sometimes she would repeat it. She began to speak single words, then phrases. Soon sentences emerged.

Aihua began kindergarten right away, even though she did not understand English. Within six months she was speaking English like a pro. Unfortunately, though, she gained English at the loss of her Mandarin. She no longer can speak or understand her native language.

The girls bonded upon meeting. We could not have found a better match for these sisters. To date, they have never even had an argument.

Rupa and Aihua excel in everything they do. Both girls are A students, and they have taken piano lessons for years. They love Girl Scouts, swimming, tandem bike riding, running, reading, and crafts. They have attended a number of summer camps, such as the Buddy Program and Lions Camp.

Alan and I are very fortunate--our girls are well adjusted, happy, healthy, and eager to learn. Certainly we cannot take all of the credit. Both of our girls were raised by caregivers who loved and valued them and spent quality time with them. They fostered the idea of perseverance, and they allowed the girls to develop into the unique individuals they are.

Time and love have cured me of what I endured in my youth. I have the love of a good man who has stood by my side, believed in me, helped me gather my strength, and modeled how to fulfill my ambitions. And I have the unconditional love expressed by our girls, who are developing into young women who are valued for being themselves. In our home and in our hearts, blindness is not perceived to be a flaw, a deficit, or anything to be ashamed of.

Raising our girls has allowed me to enjoy life and to try things that I did not have the opportunity to experience when I was growing up. Rupa and Aihua have given me more joy than I can express.

Before I close, I want to add that our house overflows with love from our two dogs, Coco and Oreo. They are always looking for a lap to sit on or trouble to get into. I feel as though I have been given a second chance in life, and I am grateful beyond words.

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